Bret Stephens: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is lucky to have enemies in the media

To understand how Ron DeSantis last week became the apparent front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — and how the liberal media helped the Florida governor get there — watch the video of his March 22 encounter with “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi.

Or rather, watch two videos. In the unedited video, DeSantis provides a detailed rebuttal to Alfonsi’s allegation that he engaged in a pay-to-play scheme with the supermarket chain Publix, trading a $100,000 campaign donation in exchange for exclusive vaccination distribution rights in Palm Beach County.

“The first pharmacies that had” the vaccine “were CVS and Walgreens, and they had a long-term care mission,” DeSantis explained, adding that, according to county officials, “90% of their seniors live within a mile and a half of a Publix.” He concluded, “We’re also now very much expanding CVS and Walgreens, now that they’ve completed their long-term care mission.”

Not one of these quotes was included in the “60 Minutes” version, which is edited to make the governor appear dismissive and nonresponsive to Alfonsi’s allegation. Nor did “60 Minutes” mention that the decision to use Publix was made not by the governor but rather by the Florida Division of Emergency Management, whose director, Jared Moskowitz, is a Democrat. Moskowitz warned “60 Minutes” in advance of the story that “this Publix narrative was malarkey.”

For as long as I’ve been politically sentient, I’ve marveled at the mainstream media’s talent for giving Republican politicians a boost — always unwittingly. Donald Trump got an estimated $2 billion worth of free media by March 2016, including from TV hosts who would later deliver impassioned soliloquies about how they despised him. Maybe they privately thought the best thing Republicans could do that year was nominate a clown with no shot of winning a general election.

Before Trump, a 2015 story about Marco Rubio’s personal spending, including for a “luxury speedboat,” deflated when the boat in question turned out to be a modest fishing boat with a pair of outboard engines. The Florida senator never got the GOP presidential nomination but handily won reelection. A 2004 CBS News hit job on George W. Bush based on unverified documents helped lift the incumbent president’s reelection campaign.

In 1987, Newsweek tarred then-Vice President George H.W. Bush with “the Wimp Factor.” It was a dumb thing to say about a former Navy pilot who had been shot down in combat, especially when his political opponent turned out to be the haplessly helmeted Mike Dukakis. The media loved to portray Ronald Reagan as a dull-witted and bellicose B-list actor who was leading the country to economic ruin and the world to Armageddon. Instead we had an economic boom, a historic arms-control deal and looming Soviet collapse.

Now these same media gods have decided to anoint DeSantis with the priceless gift of liberal misunderestimation — that combination of intellectual condescension and moralistic thunder that does so much to enrage, and therefore animate, conservative-leaning voters.

Last year DeSantis was supposed to be the governor who was doing everything wrong on COVID-19, like refusing to impose a mask mandate, while Andrew Cuomo was the governor supposedly doing everything right. “Florida Man Leads His State to the Morgue” was the title of one especially sneering piece in The New Republic.

Except that Florida, the state with the second-highest percentage of elderly people (20.5%), has a COVID fatality rate of 158 for every 100,000 residents, compared to New York’s 260, with DeSantis focusing on protecting nursing homes while Cuomo did the opposite. Florida also got school openings right, despite The New Republic having likened his approach to the pandemic to a “death march.”

None of this means DeSantis got everything right with the pandemic: Florida’s overall COVID record, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out, has been a mixed bag. But the left’s anti-DeSantis fetish turned his every nondisaster into a public-relations victory. Even “60 Minutes” was on to a reasonably good story about inequities in vaccine distribution before it alighted on the quaint hypothesis that a $100,000 donation is enough money these days to sway public policy.

More recently, the governor has aimed his political guns at Big Tech. So what does YouTube do? It removes a video of a round-table discussion featuring DeSantis with Dr. Scott Atlas and co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, which questions the consensus approach to the pandemic.

You don’t have to like Atlas or agree with the declaration to find Silicon Valley censorship deeply creepy, particularly when carried out in the name of a scientific “consensus” that has a decidedly mixed record of getting things right. You also don’t have to like DeSantis’ politics to see how he benefits when his ideological opponents keep making his point for him.

DeSantis’ latest crusade is against so-called vaccine passports, an idea pitting medical expediency against basic personal rights. Let’s see what kind of scorn gets poured on him for this one. Politicians win when they become lucky in the enemies they make. DeSantis has certainly been fortunate in his.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.